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The kidnapper's call was seven minutes late.
Eve Brooks glanced at her Rolex in the glare of her headlights for the third time in less than ten minutes.
She pulled a deep breath into her lungs and tried to remain calm. She'd parked at the precise angle the kidnapper had requested, followed his every instruction in the ransom note she'd found under her wiper blade the same day he'd been taken. So why hadn't he called yet?
Frustrated, she shoved her hands into her coat pockets. Nervous tension turned to moisture on her palms as she clenched and unclenched her fists.
"He'll call," she whispered.
If he wants the ransom money, he'll call.
Cool night air seeped through her coat and raised chill bumps on her skin. She shivered, caught up in the involuntary response that quickly turned to speculation.
Maybe Thomas was already dead? Murdered by the brazen kidnapper who 'd taken him at gunpoint from the parking garage in full view of a security camera?
A low mechanical stutter dragged her gaze to the west. She heard a rumble she recognized as air brakes on a big rig. Welcoming the distraction, she stared at its two pinpricks of light in the distance, watching the semi crest a shallow rise in the endless ribbon of asphalt she'd used to find this godforsaken rest stop in the desert above Los Angeles—
The rasp of the telephone ringing cut through her thoughts.
In one heart-stopping motion she yanked the pay phone's receiver from its cradle before it could ring a second time and pulled it to her ear.
"Yes. I'm here."
"Listen carefully. I'm only going to say this once." The kidnapper's disguised voice modulated over the phone connection. "Leave the receiver off the hook. Take the money and walk straight out into the desert. Stay in between your headlight beams. Fifty paces out you'll find a hole. Put the case in the hole and cover it with the dirt piled beside it. Come back and I'll tell you where to find him."
Dragging in an uneven breath, she willed a measure of courage into her bloodstream and straightened her spine.
"How do I know he's still alive? I want proof."
Dead airspace stretched between her and the man who'd kidnapped her business partner and soon-to-be husband, Thomas Avery, three days ago.
"Fair enough." Commotion crackled at the other end of the line, sending anticipation through her body in waves.
"Thomas! Thomas, are you—"
"He's still breathing." The man's voice boomed over the connection, barely drowning out a thud in the background. Had he landed something against the side of Thomas's head to shut him up so he could reclaim the phone?
"Don't hurt him!"
"Shut up and bury the damn money!"
Like a robot operating on a battery charge of fear, she released the handset and felt a tug on her left earlobe as the receiver dropped.
A falling glimmer of gold caught in her car lights for a second before disappearing into the darkness on the ground at her feet.
Desperation needled her nerves and threatened to undo her composure. It was her earring. A gift from Thomas the day he'd proposed.
She stared down at the pea gravel but couldn't pick out the golden hoop. She'd have to find it later, after she'd followed the kidnapper's instructions. After he told her where to find Thomas. Nothing else mattered.
She turned and hurried to her car, opened the driver's side door and pressed the trunk release. It would all be over soon. Thomas would be freed. They could go back to their life together. The wedding was less than a month away. She hadn't even gotten the chance to tell him the Paris account he'd worked so hard to broker had come through the day he was taken. Her bridal gown collection would be strutted on fashion runways worldwide, thanks to him.
Emotion squeezed her throat shut as she fumbled for the case. She would give him the good news when she had him back.
Her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around the handle. She pulled the stainless steel briefcase from the trunk and closed the lid.
Half a million dollars in unmarked bills. It seemed like a pittance for a life. She couldn't screw this up. She knew full well the consequences if she didn't do exactly as she was told.
People you love died. But not this time. She'd done everything right. No cops. No questions. No witnesses. Just what he'd asked her to do.
Her doubts vanished as she made her way out into the desert, walking in a straight line, relying on the glare of the headlights to hold back the darkness and keep her on track.
The soil under her feet was soft and sandy, swallowing her steps as she moved deep into the night. The tangy scent of damp sagebrush clung to the air, but it offered little in the way of comfort.
A blue-tailed lizard darted from a clump of dry grass and scurried across the path in front of her.
Her heart jolted in her chest, drumming against her rib cage, but she fought the urge to jump back. Instead she kept moving, kept pushing forward, counting off the paces stride by stride, pounding down her fear with the beat of each number in her head.
At forty-eight she stopped.
Searching the ground two feet in front of her she saw a black hole carved out in the desert floor just where he said it would be.
Caution pricked her brain, leaving her thoughts to bleed out unchecked. This could end like her half sister Shelly's kidnapping had. In murder, obscured by a trail of unanswered questions.
Eve pulled her shoulders back and gained a measure of certainty as she stared out across the desert landscape. Was he watching from somewhere out there? Gauging her level of commitment through a set of night-vision glasses, or goggles or whatever they were called?
Well, she wasn't going to disappoint him. She wanted Thomas back. Alive.
Stepping forward, she went to her knees, put the briefcase on the ground next to the hole and shoved it in.
It clunked against the earthen bottom a couple of feet down. Using her hands, she pushed the gritty soil in, listening to it patter against the rigid case like hard rain. In a matter of minutes she'd filled the hole and smoothed the last mound of dirt over the top. She scrambled to her feet, dusted off her hands and hurried back to the phone.
Clutching the receiver, she raised it to her ear. "I buried the money like you asked. Now, where's Thomas?"
"Directions to his location are taped to the bottom of the call box." A click at the end of the line was chased by a dial tone.
Eve's heart skipped a beat as she hung up the handset and slid her open hand, palm side up, into the narrow crevice between the telephone and the metal deck underneath it.
Feeling with her fingertips, she located a piece of paper. Crushing it against her palm with her thumb, she pulled it out.
Tension locked on every nerve ending in her body as she fumbled to open the folded note. Tipping it toward the headlights, she made out the address at the heart of the crude map. 16800 Pacific Coast Highway. Storm drain two
A glitter of gold on the ground caught her attention. Her earring? She'd almost forgotten about it.
Fisting her hand around the map so it wouldn't dissolve, she took a step forward and squatted down to pick up the hoop from its spot in the loose gravel.
The semi she'd spotted miles out was on top of her now, vibrating the earth under her feet. Headlight beams flicked across her as the truck rumbled past on the highway a stone's throw away.
"Gotcha." Eve hooked the earring with her right index finger and started to straighten.
The ear-splitting squeal of rupturing metal penetrated her awareness.
Time slowed as a brilliant flash of fire stabbed toward her on the left, sheathed in a deafening roar. Her teeth rattled in her head.
The ferocity of the blast hit her full force.
Percussion sent her skidding across the gravel like a tumbleweed. Her head slammed into the ground with a sickening thud that resonated to her toes.
Pain burned along the left side of her neck and across the top of her shoulder in hot trails of molten heat.
Stunned, she gasped for breath, her lungs on fire with the stench of her own singed flesh. Panic dragged her over the edge into an abyss. Darkness folded around her. She blinked, trying to focus her vision.
A copper-penny flavor bubbled inside her mouth. Blood? She closed her eyes, struggling to make sense of the last few seconds.
An explosion. From the telephone call box?
Realization gripped her mind as she digressed into a seizure. She succumbed to the convulsion.
There was no fighting the involuntary earthquake ripping through her muscles.
The squeal of truck tires locking up on asphalt penetrated the ringing in her eardrums.
Hope flooded her senses. She wouldn't die alone tonight. The semi's driver would stop.
The seizure dissipated.
Going with it, she relaxed into the dust and drifted down into unconsciousness, acutely aware of the golden hoop hooked on the index finger of her right hand and the map crushed in her fist.
Who would save Thomas now?
Eight months later
J.P. Ryker stared at the west-central Idaho landscape from the helicopter window and followed the direction of pilot Henry Brashear's finger point.
"There it is," he said, his voice coming in loud and clear over the bulky headset J.P. wore to drown out the drone of the rotor blades.
"The Bridal Falls Ranch. Homesteaded in 1890 by Miss Brooks's great-grandparents, Parnell and Evelyn Brooks."
"Frilly name for such a rugged place," he said into the mouthpiece as he sized the mountain peaks jousting for the sky.
"It's named after the landmark Evelyn Brooks discovered."
"Yes." He let out an audible breath. "The prettiest veil of water on the entire mountain, according to every hardy Brooks woman who has ever horse-backed in for a look. There wasn't a Brooks man willing to argue the observation."
"So the name stuck?"
The pilot squeezed the aircraft through a gap between two epic mountains and dropped a thousand feet in elevation.
"How often do you fly in?"
"Twice a month, but I'm on permanent standby at the airport hangar in town whenever Miss Brooks requires my services."
Eve Brooks, one of those hardy Brooks women the pilot had spoken of, was his newest client. Too bad he didn't know any more about her situation now than he had a week ago when she'd contacted his L.A. security firm on a referral from a former client.
Only a face-to-face meeting with her was going to answer the myriad of questions he had and fatten the nearly empty case file tucked in his duffel bag.
It was a sorry start to an investigation: several publicity photos he'd pulled off the internet of the drop-dead gorgeous former model turned wedding gown designer to the stars, who dropped from sight six months ago like a stone in a pond, and a hard copy of a brief press release from her PR rep, stating that Eve had been injured in a minor accident and would be recovering at an undisclosed location. Hell, that could amount to a broken fingernail, based on the lack of specific detail in the release. But he had a hunch it had more to do with her admission to him that she'd been targeted by a kidnapper.
"Any other routes into this place?" he asked, studying the ranch's layout deep in the valley below, surrounded by pastures of lush green grass and a sentry of mountains that peaked just below a layer of high, thin clouds brushing across the open sky.
"Four-wheel drive if you take the road to Yellow Pine. It's rough, but doable unless we get a heavy thunderstorm. The highway in the other direction toward Cascade is paved but as twisted as a lasso on a steer."
J.P. gritted his teeth and focused on the sprawling ranch below, taking a degree of comfort in its remote location. Isolation could give him the upper hand when it came to protecting Eve Brooks.
"How long have you worked for her?"
"Almost six months, but I was on staff here before her father died four years ago. I have to admit, it feels good to be working for a Brooks again."
He glanced over at the smile of satisfaction on the pilot's face. In the saddle again crossed his mind when he thought of the passel of cowboy clothes zipped up in his duffel bag. He was going in undercover as the newest hire on the working cattle ranch. Eve Brooks needed a bodyguard and someone to investigate the threats being made against her.
"What do you think of Miss Brooks? How is she to talk to? Work for?" He cast a sideways glance at the man behind the controls of the chopper and watched his grin fade.
"I don't know. I haven't had a real conversation with Miss Brooks since her daddy's funeral." The pilot started his approach, aiming for a square of concrete west of a two-story log lodge and a massive barn painted in a shade of brick red. "Nobody but her personal assistant, Edith, gets face time with her. She's effectively closed herself off from everyone, including me."
"I'm not sure, but rumor has it, she was in some sort of accident. But her need for isolation just doesn't make any sense to me. She's a sweet woman, a pretty little thing too, with a smile that could make the sun rise early. I always enjoyed her and her family. Bottom line, son, you'll have to ask her yourself."
The pilot eased the helicopter down onto the landing pad.
"Good luck," Henry said into his mouthpiece.
J.P. nodded, shed his headset and shook the man's hand.
He grabbed his duffel bag from the floor in front of his seat and climbed out of the aircraft.
From the edge of the landing site he slapped a hand on his Stetson and watched the chopper lift off, gain altitude, hover for a moment and head off in the direction they'd come.
The sensation of being watched walked across the back of his neck before the dust from the rotors had time to settle. Turning, he stared at the lodge from underneath the brim of his hat and caught a flicker of movement in the frame of an upstairs window, seeing the blinds snap shut.
The mysterious Eve Brooks?
He glanced sideways at the man who approached him with an outstretched hand. "Yes, sir." He shook the man's hand.
"Devon Hall, ranch foreman. Miss Brooks said Henry would be flying you in this morning."
"Did she tell you why I'm here?"
Devon Hall pulled off his hat and whacked it against his jeans-clad thigh a couple of times, beating a puff of dust out of it before he set it back on his head.
"Yeah. I've kept my mouth shut around the crew in case one of them is involved, but they're a heck of a good bunch of men, Mr. Ryker. In my opinion, she's barking up the wrong tree."
"Has she said as much to you?"
"No. But this is a quiet place. The hardworking folks around here are salt of the earth. They mind their own business and help their neighbors. If anyone is causing trouble, they'd be the first to call him out."
Devon Hall. Friend or foe, he didn't know, but everyone on the Bridal Falls Ranch was suspect until he knew better.